The Perfect Night for Naked-Eye Astronomy

March 2012 is one of the best times for naked-eye sky viewing there has been in a long time. Tonight, you’ll be able to see all of the planets it is possible to see without a telescope. The show starts just after sunset and the last planet to rise, Saturn, is at a good viewing altitude before 9PM local time. In between, you’ll be treated to some of the brightest stars the sky has to offer. Make some coco and make an evening of it. Here’s what’s up, literally.

Just as the sun sets and if you know exactly where to look, you’ll catch a glimpse of elusive Mercury, that tiny planet nearest the sun. This is followed by the two brightest planets Venus and Jupiter. Venus’ brightness is due to its proximity to earth and its highly reflective cloudy atmosphere. Don’t get any ideas about visiting Venus. The clouds are carbon dioxide and her rain is sulfuric acid. Throw in a surface temperature hot enough to melt lead and Venus is not the beautiful garden spot her name suggests. Jupiter is so luminous because it’s the largest planet in our solar system. Venus and Jupiter do a dance for the rest of the month, trading places and just put on a damned fine show.

Once the sun is down, you’ll be treated to some of the brightest and readily recognizable stars in the sky. I covered them before in my post, The Winter Sky, Orion and Bulls, Sisters & Dogs. First, you’ll find our old friend Orion the hunter with his alpha & beta, Betelgeuse & Rigel. Surrounding Orion are Sirius, Procyon, the twins Castor & Pollux, Capella, and Aldebaran. All fascinating objects. I urge you to research the individual characteristics and be amazed at the variety of stars in this one patch of sky. As a bonus, the Pleiades, a fascinating stellar nursery, are in the mix.

Now comes Mars whose orbit is almost at its closest approach to Earth’s orbit. Mars’ unmistakable red hue shines brightly in an otherwise dim piece of sky just below the constellation Leo.

After a coco refill, the moon rises around 7:45PM local time followed an hour later by Saturn, but give Saturn another hour to get above the horizon to a decent viewing angle. It’s worth getting a telescope out if you have one. Saturn’s rings are tilted about 15° and look impressive through the scope. If you really want a ring show, you’ll have to wait until January 2013 to get the best view, but that’s a lot of coco away so enjoy what Saturn has to offer right now.

So get the kids, make some coco, and make a family night of it. It’s free. It’s beautiful. It’s a great way to get excited about astronomy and science. You can throw in a few facts while viewing to make yourself sound smart about it all. Here’s the approximate distances to these object.

Object Distance
Mercury 5 light minutes (lm)
Venus 2 lm
Mars 4 lm
Jupiter 34 lm
Saturn 69 lm
Betelgeuse 643 light years (ly)
Rigel 860 ly
Sirius 8.6 ly
Procyon 11.4 ly
Castor 49.8 ly
Pollux 33.8 ly
Capella 42 ly
Aldebaran 65 ly

*Remember, these measurements are how long light from the object takes to reach your eye on Earth. When you are looking at Rigel, you are seeing it as it was 860 years ago. This is one of the things I love about the night sky, you’re looking into history.

All images in this post are all screen captures from Stellarium. Download it free from Stellarium dot org.


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